Architecture critic Brian Libby chooses his favorite buildings, historical and recent, in the city that captured his imagination.
Twenty years ago, I was a fresh-faced 25-year-old just off the plane, back in my home state after seven years on the East Coast and excited to put down roots in Portland. From the moment I leased my first apartment, downtown at SW 11th and Jefferson, the city’s built environment and its ongoing transformations mesmerized me.
Portland has never had much famous architecture: no Space Needle or Empire State Building to attract tourists. Yet tourists flock here, not just because of an embarrassment of Mother Nature’s riches just beyond our urban growth boundary, but also because the city itself is as well-designed as any individual building.
Portland is blessed with a community of architects who don’t view their projects as stand-alone trophies. They build places for people to come together: architecture that responds to our rainy climate with copious glass to allow interior spaces full of natural light; that is sustainably built and constructed with real craftsmanship, and that’s only considered successful if it harmonizes with the landscape and neighboring structures.
With that in mind, I’ve created this list of 10 works of Portland archi- tecture—some new, some old—that have captured my imagination during the past 20 years.
Wieden+Kennedy Agency World Headquarters
Allied Works, 2000
Without any doubt, this is the most significant work of Portland architecture built during my time in the city: a crowning achievement by this generation’s leading local architect and the project that launched his firm to international fame.
When Brad Cloepfil was awarded the W+K commission to renovate an abandoned circa-1908 storage warehouse just north of the Blitz-Weinhard Brewery in the still-sleepy Pearl District, his firm, Allied Works, had produced little save for the Saucebox restaurant on Southwest Broadway. Yet Cloepfil created a showstopper. From outside, the building looks tame and largely unchanged from its warehouse days, but inside Allied Works carved a magnificent multistory atrium around which the W+K offices are arranged, clad in natural wood and with concrete smooth enough to look like marble. The atrium, with a small auditorium at its base, feels like a secular cathedral: an architectural space that’s not just beautiful but somehow spiritual and soulful.
John Yeon, 1937
Nothing in Portland is more architecturally significant than the circa-1937 Aubrey Watzek House by John Yeon, which is owned and operated by the University of Oregon and, as of a few years ago, open for public tours each summer. Beside its beauty, the house was hugely influential. Celebrated by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in a 10th anniversary book, it kicked off the Northwest Modern regional style (modern pitched-roof wood houses with floor-to-ceiling glass and large overhangs) that was later popularized by Pietro Belluschi, Saul Zaik, Van Evera Bailey, and others.
Yeon was inspired by the boxy Bauhaus modernism sweeping Europe in the ‘20s and ‘30s, but he knew its flat roofs wouldn’t work in Oregon’s rainy climate. Like Belluschi, he disagreed with the Bauhaus notion of outright rejecting historical influences. The Watzek, designed when Yeon was only 26, fused modernism with Japanese architectural traditions (simple wood construction, large overhangs) and our local vernacular of farmhouses and barns. It’s a masterpiece.
Lever Architecture, 2013
One of the biggest building projects in Portland during the last two decades was the expansion of Pioneer Place mall downtown. But while I loved shopping malls as a teenager, they feel antiseptic and claustrophobic as an adult. Yet there is a smaller cluster of shops named Union Way that always makes me smile.
Like the Wieden+Kennedy headquarters, Union Way transforms a humble work of early-20th century architecture—in this case a pair of single-story automobile showrooms—into an alley of tiny shops like one might find in Tokyo or Paris. Walking through Union Way is an experience unto itself: a kind of wood-clad cocoon with light pouring in through skylights above. The project also made for a coming out party for Lever and its founder, Thomas Robinson, who previously had worked not only for Allied Works but for perhaps the world’s greatest architecture firm, Switzerland’s Herzog & de Meuron, designers of London’s magnificent Tate Modern museum and Beijing’s Olympic Stadium, the stunning “Bird’s Nest.” Union Way is tiny by comparison, yet pound for pound it sings with those extraordinary buildings.
Portland Aerial Tram
AGPS Architecture, 2007
The tram was born in controversy. Pitched at an unrealistic $15 million, it instead cost $57 million. But the tram, which connects OHSU’s Marquam Hill campus to the university’s expansion along the Willamette, has enabled the rapid rise of the South Waterfront district, as well as the successful $500 million Knight Cancer Challenge that will make the medical school an international leader in fighting cancer.
What ultimately was built—those wonderfully futuristic, metallic bubble cars floating over Interstate 5—was very different from what Portland native Sarah Graham and her firm, AGPS, originally proposed in the design competition. That the tram continued to get better as it evolved, overcoming budget cuts and physical constraints, is a testament to how the best designers don’t overcome challenges but turn them into opportunities. The Portland Aerial Tram is only the second urban tramway in the United States (after New York’s Roosevelt Island Tram), and it affirms our city’s pioneering identity.
A.E. Doyle, 1913
Although Pietro Belluschi is regarded as the patron saint of Portland architecture, his boss before going solo, A.E. Doyle, arguably made the greatest imprint on the city. From the Benson Hotel and Civic Stadium (now Providence Park) to the Meier & Frank building and Reed College, Doyle’s buildings have become some of the city’s most enduring landmarks—none more so than the Multnomah County Central Library, completed in 1913 and beautifully renovated by FFA Architecture in 1997.
Seven years after Central Library’s renovation, the Seattle Central Library by renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas opened, becoming perhaps the most acclaimed American architectural work of the decade, with its angular, jewel-like glassy forms. That building really is a stunner, and yet I wouldn’t trade it for Portland’s Georgian-style Central Library, with its elegant grand staircase and softly glowing reading rooms. It’s not just a great building: Doyle’s design seems to embody the idea of what a library is, even as that idea is changing from a storehouse of books to a computer-driven research and gathering spot. The best buildings evolve with the times, and Central Library does that despite being a time capsule from the more stately 20th century past.
Rick Potestio, 2005
The 2000s in Portland saw a host of condominium towers constructed in new, urban neighborhoods like the Pearl District and South Waterfront, yet the best residential buildings were arguably the ones built in our older neighborhoods. A leading example—and one only reluctantly set aside for this list—is 2004’s Belmont Street Lofts by Holst Architecture, which I adore for its interplay of wood screens and floor-to-ceiling glass.
Yet the one project I love even more may be the Lair Condominiums by Rick Potestio. One of the truly talented Portland architects of the past 20 years, Potestio never became as famous as his former University of Oregon classmate, Brad Cloepfil. Most of his designs are single-family houses scattered around the metro area and the coast. But the Lair Condominiums showed what Potestio could do with a bigger project: a contemporary building that reveals the architect’s Italian roots by transforming a sunken parking garage into a veritable piazza on which residents gather, while also tying the building to the Victorian houses down the street through its window patterning.
Beebe Skidmore, 2016
There must be something about advertising and creative agencies, because they have commissioned some of Portland’s best commercial buildings, from Cloepfil’s Wieden+Kennedy headquarters to Holst Architecture’s designs for Ziba and Instrument. The latter two could easily have joined W+K on this list—it almost came down to a coin flip—but I chose the Swift headquarters by two Cloepfil disciples, Doug Skidmore and Heidi Beebe, for its balance of pristineness and grit.
Uniting a cluster of small warehouses in Slabtown, the Swift headquarters combines old and new architecture like W+K, but instead of a new body in an old shell, Beebe Skidmore’s design is more of a true intermingling of the concrete-block original and a gleaming glass intervention. Like a 3-D manifestation of a Tetris game, the building’s rectangular forms push and pull to give the entire composition a kinetic energy, while the wide-open volumes inside become bathed in natural illumination thanks to a bevy of saw-tooth skylights. Swift feels like the ultimate Portland embodiment of the new American office. When I wrote about the project last year, I remember Swift’s owners telling me that not only were employees happier after moving here, but even their dogs (who accompanied them to work—classic PDX) had become livelier.
Veterans Memorial Coliseum
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, 1960
Forgive my bias: the Coliseum represents the one time that I have crossed over from critic to activist—I co-founded the Friends of Memorial Coliseum in 2009 to oppose its demolition.
I still don’t think Portlanders understand what a masterpiece this building is, even after it was named a National Treasure last year by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. That’s not surprising given that the Coliseum’s signature feature has been hidden away for most of the building’s history. Nicknamed “The Glass Palace,” it is one of the only arenas in the world with a 360-degree view from its seats to the outside; I once watched the sun set over the entire downtown skyline and the Willamette River from my seats. But save for a couple events each year (such as the Rose Festival Grand Floral Parade), a black curtain blocks that view.
Luckily our eight-year quest to save and restore the Coliseum may be reaching fruition, with a city-commissioned study verifying the Coliseum’s profitability as a venue and a new majority on City Council (including Mayor Ted Wheeler) favoring restoration.
Waechter Architecture, 2008
I considered many different contemporary houses for this list. The Butler residence by architect Corey Martin (now with Hacker Architects) in Southeast Portland is a work of wood-and-glass poetry. Lever Architecture’s Five Square house (also in Southeast) boldly placed a glass cube on top of a historic Foursquare home. Scott/Edwards Architecture’s Music Box is an impressive house and impromptu performance space for two Oregon Symphony musicians. And I could have chosen three or four different houses by Ben Waechter.
The Z-Haus, however, Waechter’s first project after working for masters like Brad Cloepfil and Renzo Piano, is utterly unique. The architect arranged rooms around a central stairway at half-story intervals, allowing people on different floors to make eye contact and converse. It’s such a simple move, and yet it deftly reinvents how a multistory house works.
Chapel of Christ the Teacher
Pietro Belluschi, 1986
If Brad Cloepfil is the most acclaimed Portland architect of the past 20 years, Pietro Belluschi is the city’s all-time best. His stamp is all over the city, from the Equitable Building (the world’s first curtain-walled office building) and the Portland Art Museum to a defining role in the Northwest Modern regional style of houses.
Yet my favorite Belluschi works may be his late-career local churches, all of which are gems, including Central Lutheran Church, St. Philip Neri Catholic Church, and Zion Lutheran Church. I’ve chosen his last ecclesiastical work, 1986’s Christ the Teacher Chapel, which Belluschi accurately described as a work of “eloquent simplicity,” but he also quietly makes this Catholic church more symbolically democratic, with the altar at the same level as the seats and much closer to them.
HILLSDALE LIBRARY (2004)
WORKS PROGRESS ARCHITECTURE’S
BSIDE6 (2009) &
BOWSTRING TRUSS HOUSE (2013)
COSMOPOLITAN CONDOMINIUMS (2016)
LUMBER ROOM (2010)
2281 NW GLISAN (2000)
MARILYN MOYER MEDITATION CHAPEL (1991)
DOUG FIR (2005)
HENNEBERY EDDY ARCHITECTS’
LOYOLA JESUIT CENTER (2003)